The question is on this beautiful passage from chapter 7 of La porte étroite by André Gide and particularly the highlighted words.

Elle était au fond du jardin. Je m’acheminai vers ce rond-point, étroitement entouré de buissons, à cette époque de l’année tout en fleurs, lilas, sorbiers, cytises, weigelias ; pour ne point l’apercevoir de trop loin, ou pour qu’elle ne me vît pas venir, je suivis, de l’autre côté du jardin, l’allée sombre où l’air était frais sous les branches. J’avançais lentement ; le ciel était comme ma joie, chaud, brillant, délicatement pur. Sans doute elle m’attendait venir par l’autre allée ; je fus près d’elle, derrière elle, sans qu’elle m’eût entendu approcher ; je m’arrêtai… Et comme si le temps eût pu s’arrêter avec moi : voici l’instant, pensai-je, l’instant le plus délicieux peut-être, quand il précéderait le bonheur même, et que le bonheur même ne vaudra pas…


  1. eût pu is conditionnel passé deuxième forme? (I am guessing so because time stopping is counterfactual.)

  2. If yes to 1, then we can replace it with avait pu?

  3. If yes to both 1 and 2, why was it better to use eût pu?

  4. Please feel free to explain in general terms when and why, in a counterfactual about the past, conditionnel passé deuxième forme may be preferable to plus-que-parfait (in the si clause) or conditionnel passé première forme (outside the si clause).


I realize I asked a similar question in this earlier post. But I feel that each type of context in which a choice is made between conditionnel passé deuxième forme and première forme (or plus-que-parfait) should deserve a separate question.

Besides, Teleporting Goat, who kindly answered the earlier question, said there that it was hard to tell which choice sounded better. Perhaps, this different context will bring out some more concrete criteria?

  • Same thing - it is hard for me to tell which tense would be "better". Those "u" sounds sound a bit precious to me, but I don't know a precise grammatical rule recommending the use of one or another, and they sound both fine - I mean, you might need to be consistent in your choice throughout, but I can't fault one or the other. Probably boils down to style again.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:31
  • @Frank. The trouble is that Gide will go back and forth, apparently preferring one to the other for any given occasion. StéphaneGimenez (in comments to the other question) said something about timing making a difference, which I couldn't follow. Anyway if anyone has the answer, no one has given it. So I think I should accept T.G. and, now, your saying that there is no discernible difference. Thanks.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:14
  • this is again quite subtle, so even French people might have trouble finding a rationale for one or the other (I do), so we punt and say it's "style". By the way, that style of Gide in the passage above doesn't quite work for me. I find it heavy and convoluted :-)
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:39
  • I have an issue with elle m’attendait venir par l’autre allée though. It feels broken to me, I was expecting something between m’attendait et venir.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:40
  • @Frank. Indeed, my dictionary lists s'attendre à. As for heaviness, I myself normally prefer spare writing. The primary beauty of the passage is in how it relates to the whole story, which is a prolonged expectation of a happiness that was never to be, at one level. Of course, you couldn't get that just from this passage.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:33

1 Answer 1

  1. yes, it's conditionel 'second form'. That form is used almost exclusively in literature.
  2. You could replace it by 'aurait pu' which is the conditionel 'first form'. 'avait pu' has a slightly different meaning, almost as if there was an opportunity for time to stop, but somehow it didn't happen. With the conditionel tense, the author wants to convey that time stopping can only be dreamt of and not actually something that could happen.
  3. as above, in literature the second form gives a much more 'stylish' tone to the sentence, and reads better than the first form. The meaning is the same.
  4. As above.
  • Thank you. I am somewhat confused by your characterizing the difference as one of meaning in 2, but in 3 as one of only style and tone (while the meaning remains "the same"). Would it be fair if I understood: (a) One can either always use the first form or mix the two forms (as in literature), and that's a matter of style. (b) But if you choose to mix the two forms then the second form is reserved for impossibilities and near impossibilities, while the first form is for what is merely not the case. Thus, a difference in meaning guides the choice.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:17
  • @Catomic - not to contest Rémy's interpretation in 2., but IMHO it is again somewhat objective, rather than a grammatical rule. Whether you use "aurait pu" or "avait pu", there is anyway "comme si" at the beginning of the phrase, and that "comme si" takes over and brings in the notion of possibility rather than actuality.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:41
  • @Catomic - I think the majority of the questions you ask lately are not decidable with explicit rules, but are more opinion or style based. I would be very careful to not try to find rules when IMHO there might not be any. Of course, it is interesting to see how different people react to these phrases. But there is going to be many point of views, none of them more valid than the others :-)
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:45
  • @Frank. Those different reactions of people are very helpful to someone like me just starting to learn the language and with no reaction of his own (other than to be puzzled). But duly noting your advice against expecting bright line rules.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:55
  • @Frank. I think Rémy Joandel would agree with your first comment. He would simply make the further point that conditionnel passé deuxième forme is for even remoter (more unlikely, sometimes impossible) counterfactuals, while the first form (plus-que-parfait within si) is for less remote--that is, if one made the stylistic choice to take advantage of both alternatives
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 0:56

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